People smuggler branded Audi used to import immigrants a ‘funeral car’, court hears

Some of the 39 people found dead in a lorry container in Essex were involved in an earlier foiled people-smuggling attempt, a court has heard.

The Vietnamese men, woman and children, aged between 15 and 44, suffocated as they were transported from Zeebrugge in Belgium to Purfleet on October 23 last year.

Jurors have heard how the victims had been sealed in the pitch black unit in temperatures of 38.5C (101.3F) for 12 hours. 

Irish truck driver Eamonn Harrison, 23, and British-Romanian Gheorghe Nica, 43, are standing trial at the Old Bailey over the manslaughter of the Vietnamese immigrants who were found in a container near Grays, Essex, on October 23 last year.

Valentin Calota, 37, and Christopher Kennedy, 24, are also said to have been linked to a global smuggling ring driving truckloads of foreign nationals into the UK.

The victims, including two 15-year-old boys, were found suffocated to death in an airtight trailer driven by Maurice Robinson, 26, which ‘became a tomb’.

They were identified as coming from various provinces in Vietnam and allegedly paid up to £10,000 each to be ferried into the country in search of economic opportunity.

Police and forensic officers at the Waterglade Industrial Park in Grays, Essex, on October 23, 2019 after 39 bodies of Vietnamese migrants were found inside the lorry on the estate

Harrison is said to have driven the truck to the Belgian port of Zeebrugge before it boarded a ferry for the trip to Purfleet in Essex.

They had allegedly carried out the elaborate operation on numerous occasions, even after Harrison was caught hiding illegal immigrants in his lorry in 2018. He was let off with a fine but never paid the money.

Lorry driver Eamonn Harrison, 23, of County Down, is charged with manslaughte

Lorry driver Eamonn Harrison, 23, of County Down, is charged with manslaughter

Today prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones told the court about two earlier people-smuggling trips around October last year. 

Weeks before the tragedy, Kennedy allegedly loaded ’15 to 20′ foreign nationals into the back of his truck in Purfleet and drove in convoy with the other smugglers to a remote farm.

Two residents who lived on Collingwood Farm in Grays, Essex watched the illegal immigrants jump out of the back of the truck.

The migrants had been dropped off at Zeebrugge by Harrison, before ‘ringleader’ Nica, who admits assisting unlawful immigration, arranged transport in the UK, it was said.

Nica joked with driver Alexandru Hanga, 27, who also admits the charge, to meet him in his ‘funeral car’ – a black Audi estate – and follow Kennedy’s truck to the drop-off point, jurors heard. 

Prosecutor Jones said of the event on October 11: ‘For no conceivable legitimate reason, Kennedy drove his lorry from the port to Collingwood Farm in Orsett [Essex], something of a backwater. 

Gheorghe Nica (left) and Eamonn Harrison (right), two of four men on trial at the Old Bailey in London, are pictured in a court sketch drawn yesterday by artist Elizabeth Cook

Gheorghe Nica (left) and Eamonn Harrison (right), two of four men on trial at the Old Bailey in London, are pictured in a court sketch drawn yesterday by artist Elizabeth Cook

‘He did not make the trip alone. By the time he passed Orsett Golf Club at 8.18 a.m., CCTV shows him to be driving in convoy with the following others.

Who is charged with what in the lorry case? 

Eamonn Harrison, 23

  • Denies 39 counts of manslaughter
  • Denies conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Gheorghe Nica, 43

  • Denies 39 counts of manslaughter
  • Admits conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Valentin Calota, 37

  • Denies conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Christopher Kennedy, 24

  • Denies conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Maurice Robinson, 26

  • Admits 39 counts of manslaughter
  • Admits conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

Ronan Hughes, 41

  • Admits 39 counts of manslaughter 
  • Admits conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration

‘Nica was also making plans for the next morning – and was in touch with Hanga.

‘We will see Hanga’s car on the CCTV shortly, and that reference to ‘your funeral car’ is because Hanga was driving a large black Audi which Nica obviously thought looked a bit like a hearse.

‘Nica indicated to Hanga that they would be starting at something like 6 or 7 o’clock the next morning.’

Reading from a WhatsApp exchange between Nica and Hanga, Mr Emlyn Jones said: ‘A message from Nica to Hanga: ‘I know that tomorrow morning. Have you got your funeral car okay?’

‘Go close we will speak in the morning I am coming with you.’

‘Hanga asks: ‘What does morning mean to you? What time?”

They allegedly drove together with Marius Draghici and Gazmir Nuzi who were in Mercedes saloons, and with Kennedy in the lorry, to where the witnesses spotted the migrants emerge.

Mr Emlyn Jones said: ‘Marie Andrews and Stewart Cox live on Collingwood Farm, Orsett.

‘At 8.22am, they saw the maroon red lorry with a white trailer pull up, together with what they thought were all Mercedes vehicles.

‘As they watched, Marie Andrews and Stewart Cox saw the trailer doors open and they saw what they thought was about 15 to 20 people jump out of the lorry and run to the waiting Mercedes cars and then those cars, fully laden with migrants, drove away at speed, no messing about.’

On that occasion, the trailer was dropped off by Harrison at Zeebrugge and collected by Kennedy at Purfleet who was then met by Nica and others at the nearby pick-up point, it was claimed.

Kennedy was stopped at Coquelles in France en route to Folkestone via the Eurotunnel, the court heard.

His lorry was searched and 20 Vietnamese people were discovered in the back, Mr Emlyn Jones said.

The migrants were taken away by authorities but Kennedy was allowed to continue on his way to Kent, the court heard.

Mr Emlyn Jones told jurors: ‘At least two of the Vietnamese nationals turfed out of the lorry that night ended up in Harrison’s lorry on October 22, and were amongst the victims who died that night.

‘So you may think that this provides a powerful link between the activities of October 14, and the fatal episode on the 22nd/23rd.’

A court artist's sketch drawn yesterday of Christopher Kennedy (left) and Valentin Calota (right), the other two men on trial at the Old Bailey in London

A court artist’s sketch drawn yesterday of Christopher Kennedy (left) and Valentin Calota (right), the other two men on trial at the Old Bailey in London

‘These particular victims had secured the services of the organised criminal network to get them to the UK.

‘They are providing £10,000 a head for that service.

‘Obviously, they need a plan B, they try again.

‘So the organisers have to arrange a replacement journey – which again involves the same teams of drivers, lorries, and so on.’

The prosecutor said that GPS tracking data showed Harrison making a number of illegitimate stops across Belgium and France.

Accused smugglers used ‘dirty’ burner phones for their ‘dirty business,’ court hears

The accused people smugglers used ‘dirty’ burner phones for their ‘dirty business,’ the court heard.

While Harrison ferried non-EU citizens into the country, Hughes and Kennedy bought themselves ‘untraceable’ mobiles to keep in close contact about the scheme, jurors heard.

The load of smuggled migrants was allegedly arranged to be picked up by Kennedy at Purfleet after numerous calls across the ‘dirty’ network of burners on October 17.

‘Kennedy bought himself a new phone. [He had] a contract phone, in his name, registered to him at his home address. [This one] was a pay-as-you-go.

‘It’s what we call a ‘burner’ – a ‘dirty phone’ – not registered to anyone, untraceable, disposable.

‘We will look, during the evidence, to see if Kennedy had another burner before this one, in use at around the time of the events of the 11 and the 14 which we have already looked at.

‘As we look at it it will become obvious that these are dirty phones he uses for dirty business. He uses one, he chucks it away, he uses another. They’re disposable.

‘When Robinson is trying to get through to the burner, he uses a burner. Dirty phone to dirty phone.

‘Hughes, in order to carry on his people smuggling business, needs a new burner.’

‘Whatever any of those stops were for, they were not to pick up some legitimate load – because the trailer he delivered to Zeebrugge contained people, it did not contain onions, or biscuits or chipolatas.’

Later, the court also heard that Kennedy claims he stopped near Calais ‘like a clown’ where opportunistic migrants jumped into his lorry without his knowledge.

He ‘squashed in’ the foreign nationals with a legitimate load for UK importers Midlane West when he was caught by French authorities, jurors were told.

A Midlane West worker allegedly sent Kennedy a message about his journey on October 14, saying: ‘Hi mate all OK? Nothing wrong with load is there cos had email saying immigrations on board.’

The accused people smuggler claimed he had stopped at a supermarket near Calais in France and his boss was ‘going mad’.

In the exchange read to jurors, Kennedy said: ‘Nothing wrong. I stopped at Pidou like a clown. Boss man going mad. Won’t be doing that again.’

‘Yeah, best not. Dry load,’ came the reply.

Mr Emlyn Jones said: ‘Midlane West were the importers of the legitimate load that Kennedy had in his lorry – the migrants were squashed in with a legitimate consignment of goods and Midlane West were anxious to know what was going on there.

‘And you see the explanation Kennedy gave for what had happened. Pidou is a supermarket, there are two branches on the outskirts of Calais; it looks like Kennedy was implying that ‘like a clown’ he had taken his lorry to a place where opportunist migrants had climbed aboard without him knowing.

‘That remains his case – that he had no idea about the immigrants on board – not that night, not on the 11 at Collingwood Farm, not the next time he went to Collingwood Farm on the 18 to drop them off either.’

He had travelled to France earlier in the day and met Harrison, according to cell-site data and messages between the pair, prosecutors claim.

The court also heard migrants were ‘squashed’ inside a lorry load of Belgian biscuits as they were ferried across the English Channel by the people smuggling ring.

The non-EU citizens sailed in a cargo ship – the Victorine – and were picked up days before 39 Vietnamese nationals suffocated to death in the back of the lorry.

Robinson collected two legitimate loads of confectionery from Delice deComines and Biscuits Popelier before meeting his alleged accomplice Harrison and swapping vehicles, the court was told.

The prosecutor went on: ‘The ship, the Victorine, sailed at 10pm. As we shall see from the events surrounding its arrival in Essex, there was another load of migrants on board, although there was one difference this time – the migrants were squashed in with a legitimate load of biscuits as well.

‘On the evening of October 16, Ronan Hughes had sent some instructions to Maurice Robinson, for the pickup of two loads of biscuits – the first from Delice de Comines and the second from Biscuits Popelier – both in Belgium.

Warehouse boss turned away delivery of macaroons after boxes arrived covered in dirt with signs of ‘human activity’, court hears

A warehouse boss turned away a delivery of macaroons and Bakewell tarts after the boxes arrived covered in footprints and dirt with signs of ‘human activity’, the court heard.

Temperatures in the container allegedly plummeted from 25.2C to 2.4C after he dumped the migrants at Collingwood Farm and drove to the Kent coast, jurors were told.

But when he arrived at Lenham Storage, manager Barbara Richmond Clark wrote off his load of macaroons and Bakewell tarts as ‘fishy’ and refused to accept them.

Prosecutor Bill Emlyn Jones said: ‘Kennedy drove his lorry, still pulling the same trailer to the Lympne Industrial Estate near the Kent coast.

‘When Kennedy arrived, his load was inspected. Ms Richmond-Clarke noticed that although the top layer of macaroons looked alright, underneath them were crushed boxes and damaged and had footprints and dirt on them.

‘This indicated to her that there had been human activity inside the trailer.

‘It also appeared to her that the goods had been restacked. This was odd, as the seal on the trailer’s rear doors had been unbroken.

‘She thought the whole thing was a bit fishy.’

‘Later that night Robinson set sail for the continent, pulling Hughes’ new trailer, GTR128D. He went straight to the location of the first biscuit pick up, Delice de Comines, and bedded down for the night.’

Harrison then crossed the channel to meet the alleged co-conspirator in Belgium after the food had been collected and picked up the lorry.

Instead of driving to the coast, he made his way to Nieppe, where he was ‘fiddling around’ for almost half an hour on the outskirts of an industrial estate, the court heard.

‘This time he spends almost half an hour there fiddling about. What was he doing? Remember, his trailer was already full of biscuits, so he was not collecting any legitimate load,’ Mr Emlyn Jones said.

The court also heard that the people smugglers used a refrigerated lorry similar to the one in which 39 migrants suffocated to death five days later.

Temperatures soared to 22.8C (73F) but did not reach the ‘unbearable’ 38C (100F) highs during the fatal journey on October 23, jurors heard.

The prosecutor said the only possible explanation for the trailer’s recorded change in heat during the journey on 18 October was the presence of ‘breathing, warm blooded human beings.’

Mr Emlyn Jones said: ‘Unlike the trailers involved in the incidents of people smuggling on October 11 and 14, [this trailer] provides us with an additional source of evidence.

‘It being a refrigerated lorry, obviously is important to be able to control – and record – its temperature.

‘The temperature in the trailer was fairly steady, in the mid-teens, reflecting the ambient temperature of a mild autumn day in northern Europe.

‘Biscuits, of course, don’t need the refrigerator unit to be on, and of course don’t give off any heat themselves.

‘But look what happened to the temperature after Harrison’s stop off in Nieppe, where we just saw him leave at about 6pm. A slight drop – but then a significant increase – and so it goes on.

‘The only possible explanation for that is the presence inside that trailer of breathing, warm blooded, human beings. It’s rising and rising each time.’

Harrison, from County Down, Northern Ireland, denies 39 counts of manslaughter and conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration.

Nica, of Basildon, Essex, denies 39 counts of manslaughter but admits one of conspiring to assist unlawful immigration.

Kennedy, of County Armagh, Northern Ireland, and Calota, of Birmingham, each deny conspiring to assist unlawful immigration between May 1, 2018 and October 24, 2019.

The trial continues.

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